The following message was offered at worship by Gary Stevenson, a long-time lay participant in the St. George's community of faith while our Pastor Rev. Ryan Slifka was away on May 31st. That Sunday we also celebrated Trinity Sunday.
Message: The Secret of Life
Bible reading Luke 4 1-13. The Temptation of Jesus Christ
Well….family of faith…I am just as surprised as you are to find myself here in front of you….but when the Lord starts to put, as they say …”a bug in your ear”….you can’t ignore Him. Someone once told me that it can take up to 10 hours to prepare each message….and I can now understand, for it took me 20 hours……that’s 6 hours of preparation and 14 hours of worry, but I guess that is the human condition. So…..let’s journey together and begin with prayer.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, our strength, and our redeemer. Lord…send your Holy Spirit upon this place, to strengthen us and equip us for your missions to each other…to our community and to the world! Amen!
I am like a sponge! I absorb the environment around me. As a child of mid 50’s, I was raised through to the 60’s and completed in the 70’s ready to enter the world as a young adult. I am a fan of food, music, movies and television as they reflect the values of society at that time. One TV show I loved in the day, that most of you will probably remember, was Columbo. The dilapidated detective with the rumpled coat, the beat up car and the challenged eyesight. He was relentless and I can hear his voice even now saying, “OH…just 1 more question!!” The thing I loved about this show was that they always showed you, in the very beginning, who did it….who did the crime…and how. Then Columbo would solve the case….brilliant! Some of you may be thinking, “What’s the point?” and here it is.
My message today is titled..” the Secret of Life” and instead of a journey of a message with the answer at the end, I am going to tell you right now…up front…just like Columbo….the answer to this is, very, very, simple. The secret of life is…WE ALL HAVE FREE WILL…….We get to make our own choices!! God allows us to lead our own lives and we get to make our own decisions! Our choices shape our lives and determine who we are and where we are going. How incredible a gift.
Somehow I have always been fascinated by free will, that our God, who made the Heavens and the Universe, every grain of sand on every beach in the world, would love all of us so much that He would set us free to find our own way through life. Not only has He set us all free, He has given us the Scriptures with the 10 Commandments as a way to live, guidelines for a healthy way of living….and then He ultimately came in the form of Jesus Christ to actually show us examples of how to live and how to spread the good news of the Gospel. To show….and to tell! Wow…what a loving Creator!
From our Heavenly Parent… now to a mortal parent, me….a mortal parent of 2 girls who are now women. I can attest to the challenges of raising children, especially girls, and all the decisions or choices that were made, and the difficulty of it all in a changing society with constantly evolving moral standards. Of course, all of this was done in conjunction with my bride Deb, thank goodness. And then after 15 or so years of making decisions for our daughters, it was time to watch the moral code we had instilled in them, years of Sunday School, years of family discussions at the dinner table, years of relationship…….and then…with trust….they start to make their own decisions. I have always tried to impress my daughters with making “good choices” and impress upon them that sometimes a small insignificant decision can have huge repercussions. My youngest daughter rolled her eyes and gave the Oh Dad look, you know, like you are giving them a lecture which was not my intent ever. So I gave her an example. “Suppose you are at a party and its midnight and you are trying to get home because you are already late. The only person there who has a car and is going to town is a girl who is really, really drunk. She says slurringly….sure I’ll drive you. Now you are caught between taking that ride or….phoning your parents to pick you up. If you choose the ride…it could alter your life forever in a catastrophic way. See how choices are important?” Well, her answer was amazing. “Dad……you know I am too smart to get caught in a position like that. I would have left earlier when there were sober rides available. After all….you did raise me.!” Well….we must have done something right…..we must have made some good decisions in raising our children because the evidence was…and still is….compelling. So, even the choices we make on behalf of others, someone in our care….maybe young …maybe old, are very important too, and can have a powerful effect.
If you know me, you know I am blessed or cursed depending on how you look at it……with a strong sense of humour. If I tell a good joke I am blessed…if I tell a bad one I am cursed. So I am compelled at this moment to lighten the message a bit with an appropriate anecdote and let you be the judge.
An atheist was taking a walk through the woods, admiring all that the evolution had created. "What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!" he said to himself. All this made by nature.
As he was walking alongside the river he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the bear was closing.
He ran even faster, so scared that tears were coming to his eyes. He looked over his shoulder again, and the bear was even closer. His heart was pumping frantically and he tried to run even faster. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw the bear right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike him.
At that instant the Atheist cried out "Oh my God!...."
The bear froze.
The forest was silent.
Even the river stopped moving.
As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky, "You deny my existence for all of these years; teach others I don't exist; and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?"
The atheist looked directly into the light "It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask You to treat me as Christian now, but perhaps could you make the bear a Christian?"
"Very well," said the voice.
The light went out.
The river ran again.
And the sounds of the forest resumed.
And then the bear dropped to his knees, brought both paws together...bowed his head and spoke:
"Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful...AMEN!"
Another case of a decision by free will gone wrong.
In the U.S. there is a very famous Pastor and author Charles Swindoll. He is attributed as the author of a very powerful statement that is on posters, coffee cups and who knows where else. It is very profound about free will. It is called Attitude and it goes like this….”
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.
Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home.
The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is a formula… 10% of life is what happens to me and 90% of life is how I react to it.
And so it is with all of us... we are all in charge of our attitudes. End of quote.
So what Mr. Swindoll is so eloquently stating is that our choices, our free will after something has happened to us…good or bad…are very powerful. Certainly powerful for the atheist in the previous story. An example of everyday life in the 10% vs 90% rule is driving. We have all been cut off by a car or had something really frustrating happen to us while driving. We can choose to ignore the situation or mutter that they could benefit from driving lessons. Then, there is the other reaction we have all heard of. Grabbing a tire iron and smashing in their windshield. I realize this is extreme, but it does go on and is a shining example of what can go wrong with our reactions. Both situations have amazingly different possible outcomes. Both are choices.
Years ago we were delighted to host Reverend Gareth Evans for a series of seminars on “Intimacy with God”. It was a beautiful event that many here will still remember. Gareth is a delightful man born in Wales who has served the Lord all over the world. He has amazing stories (which I call truths because the word story can sound like it’s made up) of God at work in the world, through him and others. He wrote 4 books which are full of observations of the world around him and his incredible faith and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. One of these books is called “Stepping Stones”, and it documents seemingly small decisions he made in his life that ended up much larger and significant as time went on. We all can look back on our lives and see our own stepping stones, almost like life is a pond that we have to get across, and when we make a decision to step out onto the lake surface, a stone appears to support us. Then we can, with time and a retrospective mind, look back and see where we have been, see the significance of our decisions either good or bad. Free will can be a blessing or a curse depending on the choices made.
A decision I have made is to read every night before I go to bed. I find it calms my nerves and settles my brainwaves for sleep. I read from the Old and New Testaments every night as well as a good spy novel or something I don’t have to think too much about to read. The Bible…now there’s a book filled with decision after decision, choice after choice with some good….and lots bad. Also, something that has come to mean a lot to me is ready Daily Devotionals. Something in Our Daily Bread caught my eye last year that is appropriate to this message. It goes like this….In JRR Tolkein’s book The Hobbit, the wizard Gandalf explains why he has selected Bilbo, a small Hobbit, a tiny peaceful being to accompany the dwarves to fight the evil enemy. On a side bar it is important to note that this book was written in the trenches of WW1 and was an allegory to the destruction created by the great war machine and the impending industrial ecological wasteland that it produces. So the wizard Gandalf says, “Saruman (basically evil or Satan in the book) Saruman believes it is only great power that can keep evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small every day deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. The small chosen acts of kindness and love!” Wow…the small chosen acts of kindness and love defeating the great entity of evil. Free will at its best!!
There is great irony in the fact that God has set us free to determine our own lives. Years ago the youth of St. George’s were studying the movie comedy Bruce Almighty, which although a comedy, is very thought provoking. For those of you who have not seen it, it stars Jim Carrie as a man who is trying to get his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) to love him again. One night, Bruce(or Jim Carrie) in a fit of frustration and anger, goes out in a storm and curses God and basically says he can do a better job of running the Universe than God can. The next day God (played by Morgan Freeman) reveals himself to Bruce and agrees to give him all his power for a week to see how much better he can run the Universe. Well, of course Bruce screws it up and much of the world is in chaos. And to make matters worse…..he still can’t get his girlfriend to love him. God appears to Bruce and Bruce says…..get ready for it because this is the point….”How do you get somebody to love you without affecting their free will?” Morgan Freeman as God replies”. How do you think I feel?” Wow…..imagine the Creator of the heavens and the universe saying…because I have given free will……I can’t make everyone love me….they have to on their own, they have to come to me willingly. You just assume that everyone would love their parent, particularly our heavenly parent….but no, that’s not the case.
So what is it that keeps us from having a loving relationship with our Heavenly Father? Usually it can be attested to poor choices, lifestyle choices, and ultimately sin. As was explained by a message earlier this year, the origin of the Greek root word for sin is” to miss the mark”, as in archery…to miss the mark or bulls-eye. And what poor choices, or sin does to us, is develop a barrier between us and God, blocking the full realization of a life full of our complete God. To simplify, I’ve always imagined God’s love as a form of sunshine that gently radiates or lightly, rains down on us, always, constantly, never ending…infinite pure love. When we choose to make bad decisions or sin, we put a barrier up that keeps us from experiencing a life filled with the total love of God, much like this (pop open umbrella).
So we need to change our ways, make good choices and fold up our umbrellas of the past and move forward with the complete and total love of the Lord, and also, love Him in return.
Today’s Bible reading was the 3 temptations of Jesus Christ. Powerful stuff! Have you ever noticed how temptation always seems to appear at our weakest moments, when we are down and out. Jesus, after 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and seeking solace in the Lord because he knows that the cross is coming, weakened and exhausted he experiences Satan with 3 offers. Tell this stone to become bread……worship me, Satan, and the world will be yours…..throw yourself down from this height that the angels will come to save you! Jesus reply, a resounding no….3 times, after 40 days of fasting I’m sure bread would look pretty good but Jesus stayed true to His calling and our Heavenly Father. The answers? “It is written…man does not live by bread alone....It is written, worship the Lord you God and serve only Him……It is said, do not put the Lord your God to the test!” Throughout the Bible Jesus only made good choices with his gift of free will! Divine choices….divine results!
I thank you for listening to the wandering thoughts of one of your faith family who loves the Lord. Today, you have made good choices! You have forsaken the material world for the spiritual world and attended Sunday Worship to honour the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . You have chosen the narrow path that our Loving Father so wishes us to walk. Continue to make good choices with your free will and remember…..no matter what you do…..God loves you….and as Ryan likes to say…..God loves you....and, there’s nothing you can do about it!! AMEN
Benediction and Blessing
And now….go out into the world making good decisions with your gift of free will. Be energized by the Holy Spirit, empowered by Jesus the Christ and loved by God the Father. And now, I invite you to feel the Love of God as He wraps his arms around you. May the Lord bless you and keep you, may He cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, May He lift up His Spirit upon you and grant you peace. In Jesus name….Amen.